Beijing University Civil Society Center’s “Ten Major Events in China’s Social Sector for 2013”

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On January 15, 2014, the Beijing University Center for Civil Society Studies announced the 10 top events of 2013 selected by a group of experts from 16 events chosen through a multi-stage polling and selection process. While it was put together through an elite-driven process, it is informed by a perspective and spirit very different from the top 10 events selected by the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

1. Reform of the dual management system allows four different categories of Social Organizations (SOs) to register direct with the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MOCA)

Published in approximately 1989, the “Regulations for Management and Registration of Social Organisations” established a dual management system for the registration of SOs that has restrained their development and attracted continuous criticism from experts and professionals in the sector. In March 2013, during the first session of the 12th National Peoples’ Congress the “Blueprint on the Reform and Transformation of Civil Service Institutions and their Functions” was considered and adopted. In its 23rd clause, the blueprint states that “trade associations, chambers of commerce, scientific and technological organizations, charitable (or public benefit) organizations and urban-rural community service organizations will carry out MOCA’s direct registration system,” adding that “the system of rule-based management supervision for SOs will be strengthened and SOs encouraged to improve their internal governance structures.” Shortly thereafter, the State Council and MOCA published a series of decisions and policies, with MOCA Deputy Minister, Li Liguo, making numerous speeches to promote and clarify the reforms. In its first year, the new system of direct registration has already helped more than 19,000 SOs register with MOCA at all levels.

Party committees and governments in Yunnan, Anhui, Fujian, Dalian, Ningbo and Xiamen have all published detailed policy documents that promote the reform and innovation of SOs. On August 23, the Yunnan Provincial Party Committee and Yunnan Provincial Government published a paper setting out their “Opinions on Fostering the Development of SOs and Accelerating the Emergence of a Modern SO System” together with a series of accompanying policies, including the withdrawal of government from public fundraising for charities, local tax breaks and government procurement services.

Reasons for inclusion: The dual management system has received extensive criticism on account of its limitations. Government has finally responded to these criticisms with a practical response that is consistent with the governance trend of simplifying registration procedures for CSOs. However, real change has only just begun and the selective loosening of policies does not go anywhere near far enough.

2. Tang Hui (唐慧) wins the legal case against Yongzhou re-education through labor committee, prompting the revision of related laws.

On the afternoon of July 15, 2013, under the watchful gaze of several dozen journalists, Hunan Provincial High Court declared the “petitioning mother,” Tang Hui, victorious in her case against the Yongzhou Re-education through Labor (RETL) Committee. The presiding judge, whose declaration is final and cannot be appealed, upheld three of the plaintiff’s claims: to repeal Yongzhou Intermediate Court’s initial judgment, to grant the plaintiff compensation of RMB 1,641.15 for the loss of 9 days freedom (spent in detention) and a further RMB 1,000 for mental stress. In response, the Yongzhou RETL Committee commented that there would be a positive and appropriate outcome to the case.

All cross-sections of society took a great interest in the Tang case, with the NPC, as the legislative body, calling for a positive response. On December 25, the Standing Committee of the NPC, while deliberating over a draft amendment to the “Administrative Procedure Law,” expressed hope that work to revise the current law could progress at a faster rate. The case prompted a widespread debate over the abolition of the half-century-old RETL system which, thanks to the concerted efforts all walks of society, was finally repealed at the end of 2013.

Reasons for inclusion: Looking at this case, we can see a positive adjustment in the relationship between the state and the people, as well as an enormous energy at grass-root level to alter the behaviour of government institutions. The relationship between individual citizen rights and the power of government institutions has long been out of balance. Except for individual rights protection actions, the social conscience, public action and rational government, there has been no long-term effective remedy to this imbalance.

3. Contentious birth control policy is loosened by allowing “a couple to have a second child if one of the couple is an only child”. Demographic policy shifts away from overall size control to better distribution control.

With the onward march of time the spectre of an aging population marches ever closer into sight, leaving the State’s central policy of birth control facing an unprecedented challenge. Aside from citizens deprived of their reproductive rights, academics have long discussed and tabled reform proposals to address the triple-whammy of a declining fertility rate, a shrinking working-age population and the strain of providing social care to the elderly. On March 1, 2013, at a “Forum on Population Policy Reform” held at Beijing University, leading academic experts from all fields discussed and made proposals to address the most immediate threat to social development, namely uneven population distribution rather than population size, giving momentum to the ultimate goal of population policy reform.

On November 15, 2013, the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee approved the “Decision on Important Issues Regarding the Comprehensive Deepening of Reform” which clearly sets out the intention to “launch the implementation of a new policy that will allow couples that are both only children to have a second child.” The following day the Deputy Director of the National Health and Family Planning Commission, Wang Pei’an (王培安), set out further details of the launch and implementation. Meanwhile, even before the end of the year it was reported that work to revise related legislative procedures had already begun in a number of areas, including Beijing and Yunnan, who expect to begin implementation at the beginning of 2014.

Reasons for Inclusion: “Reducing gravestones by cutting the birth rate” is a slogan that demonstrates the level of commitment towards population size control. For the last 30 years, the strict enforcement of family planning policy has led to heart-wrenching pain for a whole generation of Chinese people. Today, as the country is left with the tragic reminder of millions of childless families who have lost their only child (due to illness or misadventure), there is also a need to face up to the demographic crunch of a declining birth rate, an aging population, and the serious issue of tens of millions of bachelors. The state has at last begun to correctly re-orientate the direction and pace of policy, even if it has not yet completely abolished the single child policy.

4. Air pollution pushes China’s environmental problems to the limit and citizen action prompts government to take on greater responsibility.

Severe air pollution impacted heavily on people’s work and lives across most cities in central and eastern areas during 2013, causing psychological anguish and high-level health risks. One by one, provincial governments in many areas began to monitor air quality data, including the PM2.5 index. At the same time, independent environmental monitors, including volunteers and environmental organizations from across a number of cities, coalesced into an online group called “Citizen Air Quality Observers” that collects and publishes PM2.5 data on its website from more than 10 cities. These observers stress the importance of “civic responsibility” in addressing the problem of air pollution and advocate for collective action, such as “cutting down on car usage by one day” and “setting off fewer firecrackers.”

As early as March 1999, experts from Tongji and Fudan universities in Shanghai had already begun to monitor PM 2.5 levels. At the beginning of November 2011, the American Embassy in Beijing began to publish PM 2.5 data on its website which, when re-circulated across the Internet by well-known Weibo personalities, rapidly brought the issue to people’s attention and, for a time, even sparked off an international dispute. Membership of the “Citizen Air Quality Observers” group also grew rapidly. In an effort to put citizens at ease, the Chinese government began, in 2012, to monitor and publish real-time PM 2.5 levels in a number of important regions including the Yangtze River Delta, Pearl River Delta, the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei sub-region, as well as various municipalities and provincial capitals. As a result, tackling air pollution really has become part of the national consciousness, and a number of local governments have intensified their anti-pollution efforts, much to the approval of the masses.

Reasons for Inclusion: Regardless of our wealth or status, we all breathe the same air meaning that we are all victims of air pollution. The fact that previously, we ignored the capability of certain important technologies, and had divergent views with international partners is no longer important. But survival is in our own enlightened self-interest, which means taking collective action for mutual benefit, raising awareness of previous mistakes and focusing on controlling PM 2.5 as well as other measures as a new multifaceted model for dealing with problems of a collective nature.

5. The political and legal basis of the “China Dream” triggers a national debate, and the 3rd Plenum uses a “China ruled by law” to reach a verdict.

At the beginning of 2013, the media kicked off a wide-ranging debate to explore the political and legal basis of the China Dream. The China Dream is a concept – referred to in Xi Jinping’s speeches on the “New path of reinvigoration” and “Constitutional Government”, respectively made at a visitors exhibition at the National Museum of China and the 30th anniversary meeting in honor of the publication of the PRC’s constitution – that has resonated throughout society. Debate in the domestic and international media, as well as social media channels has been lively, involving academics from all major institutions as well as the general public.

On November 15, 2013, the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee approved the “Decision on Important Issues Regarding the Comprehensive Deepening of Reform” which sets out the commitment to build a society built on rule of law. This decision emphasizes the commitment to building an integrated system of rule of law that runs across all of society and government.

Reasons for Inclusion: A China based on the principle of ‘rule of law’ derives itself from the legal and political consensus of the “China Dream,” which was arrived at through debate among thinkers, intellectuals and the media throughout 2013. Using this form of open debate to achieve public consensus for political decisions is, in itself, a mechanism that is illustrative of a modern governance system.

6. From a zero-sum game to consultative democracy: the Yunnan PX project puts public reason to the test.

On April 18, 2013, two local environmental organizations in Yunnan, Green Kunming and Green Watershed, carried out an on-the-spot investigation of Yunnan Petrochemical’s one billion ton oil refining project in Anning City (referred to as the Yunnan PX Project). Despite being first discussed in 2004, the project only received feedback from the Ministry of Environmental Protection in July 2012, and was not officially approved by the Yunnan Provincial Government until the end of March 2013.

When the project was announced there was a panicked and concerned reaction from the Kunming public, owing to the omission of certain details, resulting in a peaceful protest by almost 3,000 citizens in Nanping Square on May 4. On the morning of May 10, the Kunming city government held a press conference to publically respond to rumours about PX due to public feeling towards the project. In a further move aimed at clearing up any misunderstandings and assuaging public concern, the Yunnan Government also invited citizen representatives to meet informally with chemical engineering experts. Towards the end of June China Petrochemical Company finally bowed down to publish pressure and published an “Environmental Impact Assessment of the Yunnan PX Project”, bringing closure to this incident.

Reasons for Inclusion: An example of how the public mobilised itself spontaneously to form a group that raised its legitimate concerns and objections to government. In response, the government – out of respect for public feeling towards the project – organised public consultation meetings to bring together stakeholders from government, industry and the public. When compared to PX projects in Xiamen, Dalian, Ningbo and other places that “stopped as soon as they hit problems”, the handling of the Yunnan PX incident promotes and highlights both the management capability of local government and growing public maturity.

7. The apology of Chen Xiaolu (and others) for their behavior during the Cultural Revolution finally addresses a historical issue.

The Red Guards “belated apology” (during the summer of 2013) for their behaviour during the Cultural Revolution attracted a lot of public attention. Liu Boqin from Shandong Province, fast approaching 60, was the first to issue an apology in Yanhuang Chunqiu “炎黄春秋” magazine’s 6th issue of 2013 where he reflected on his actions during the Cultural Revolution that brought pain and distress to teachers and colleagues, made a sincere apology and sought forgiveness for errors of the past. While he believes that his behavior was the result of the coercive influence of the Cultural Revolution he acknowledges that there is no escaping his personal responsibility for acts of individual evil. On August 20, Chen Yizhi’s son Chen Xiaolu published an article “Chen Yizhi reflects on the cultural revolution and makes a sincere apology” which acknowledges “having previously caused hurt to leaders, teachers and classmates at his old school” during the period 1966-1968 and makes a sincere apology to all former alumni. Concurrently, other former Red Guards including Song Jiqiao from Hebei, Zhang Hongbing from Anhui, Wen Qingfu from Hunan, Lu Jiashan from Shandong and Lei Yinglang from Fujian consecutively released their own forms of apology to people they had harmed during the Cultural Revolution. Some academics have pointed out that “the aim of apologizing for historical mistakes is not about victims apportioning blame on the perpetrators but rather a promise to the whole of society that the same mistakes will never be repeated again.”

Reasons for Inclusion: “Belated apologies” are a reflection of society’s need to lay ghosts of the past to rest. It is only after a nation has dealt with the nightmares and distorted truths of the past that it can begin to rise up again and regenerate. We need the courage to own up to our mistakes but also look forward to sincere forgiveness so that society can, by re-visiting its definition of human morality, create a new atmosphere of acceptance.

8. On day one of the Ya’an earthquake the One Foundation, a privately funded foundation, collected more donations than the government-organised Chinese Red Cross, putting pressure on government-run foundations to reform.

At just after 8 o’clock on the morning of April 20, 2013, an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale erupted in the Lushan County area of Ya’an City in Sichuan Province. In response, the government issued a circular encouraging the public to make donations in support of relief and construction work to a foundation of their choice. By 4 o’clock on the same day, the Chinese Red Cross claimed, via Weibo, to have collected funds worth more than RMB 30,000 from 213 donors. According Yao Yao, the Deputy Director of the Communications Department of the One Foundation, an independent public fundraising foundation, the One Foundation had collected more than RMB 10 million by 8 o’clock the same evening: the contrast [with the Chinese Red Cross] sparked wide public interest and comment.

Exactly one week after the earthquake, data published on the website of the China Foundation Centre showed that RMB 1.49 billion had been raised by 115 foundations, of which more than RMB 170 million had been collected by the One Foundation. On the same day at 5 o’clock, the Chinese Red Cross announced on its website that it had raised RMB 566 million. This shows that although donations to the One Foundation far exceeded those made to The Red Cross on Day One of the earthquake, this trend was ultimately reversed.

Reasons for Inclusion: Being able to compare the fundraising success of organisations is a first in China, and one which essentially came down to a battle of public confidence. The change from an administrative mechanism which directs donations to a few GONGOs to a mechanism which allows individuals to donate to an organization of their choice has put private foundations firmly at the centre of the battle for public trust. In response to this pressure, GONGOs have had no option but to reform.

9. The Big V bloggers are sued and there is a powerful but controversial push for internet regulation.

On 20th August 2013 the Public Security Bureau (PSB) announced the closing down of internet design company Beijing Er Ma Interactive Marketing Strategy, Ltd. by the Beijing Police, detaining both the company’s legal representative Yang Xiuyu (known as Li er chai si) and former employee Qin Zhihui (known as ‘Qin HuoHuo’) in the process. Further arrests were made using information from the internet, including those of Zhou Lubao and Fu Xuesheng. During a 3-minute report on 23rd August, network television announced the arrest of Xue Manzi on charges of soliciting prostitutes, leading to widespread media controversy.

On the afternoon of 4th September, the State Internet Information Office of the PRC convened a briefing on “Striking down Citizens that Use the Internet to Spread Rumors” that was attended by 11 netizen representatives who held discussions on responsible internet expression. On 9th September the Supreme Peoples’ Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate published an article “Legal Remedy in relation to criminal cases that involve, among other, handling cases where online information networks are exploited for the purposes of slander” which states that use of the internet to slander another, posting slanderous information that receives more than 5,000 hits and the onward circulation of such information to more than 500 other users will all, henceforth, constitute criminal offences.

Reasons for Inclusion: The Internet is the main channel through which citizens exercise their right to access information and their right to expression. Following the publication of the internet supervision and management policy the public expressed concern that charges relating to crimes of expression could be made too easily. In particular, it poses the question of how to screen the internet effectively for slanderous information (or rumor-mongering) while at the same time protecting the public’s freedom to post reasonable comments. This remains an open question that needs to be further explored by government and society.

10. The Ya’an earthquake once again tests the capability of the disaster emergency response system. At the same time, social organizations and government finally show that they can cooperate well together.

On 20th April 2013, an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale erupted in the Lushan County area of Ya’an City in Sichuan Province. In response, a rapid relief effort was launched by government, while CSOs were also quick to throw themselves into the rescue operation. On 23rd April, the Charity Foundation came together in an alliance with a number of other foundations to jointly launch a “Joint Relief Effort in response to the Ya’an Earthquake.” This not only established a coordination mechanism to deliver relief efforts but also made coordination a basic value for CSOs participating in the relief effort. As a result, CSOs formed a number of alliances to deliver the relief effort, thereby significantly increasing their overall delivery capacity. On 25th April, the government office coordinating the overall relief operation decided to establish a “Social Management Services Group” aimed at guiding and organising the relief effort in an orderly manner based on law. On 28th April, the “Social Management Services Group” established the “Sichuan Provincial Disaster Relief Volunteer Service Organization and Community Center”, which took on the responsibility of registering organizations and volunteers wanting to participate in the relief efforts, disseminating information in relation to need and guiding the overall effectiveness of relief work.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, CSOs realised the need to work in partnership to deliver an effective relief effort and subsequently did so in an orderly fashion. Meanwhile, government, in its overall coordination role, established an organisation for the specific purpose of coordinating contributions from volunteers and CSOs. Following the Wenchuan earthquake of 2008, this demonstrates the growing maturity of both government and CSOs to work together to coordinate disaster relief efforts.

Reasons for Inclusion: CSOs make headway while under great pressure. In the aftermath of the Ya’an earthquake, CSOs have shown that they are capable of joining effective disaster relief and reconstruction efforts, and of cooperating with government in an innovative way. This represents progress for the whole of society and, in addition, shows that if CSOs want to become worthy partners, they first need to show that they are capable of self-organisation.

In Brief

On January 15, 2014, the Beijing University Center for Civil Society Studies announced the 10 top events of 2013 selected by a group of experts.
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